Dark PR: How Corporate Disinformation Harms Our Health and the Environment

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    Grant Ennis

    Publisher: Daraja Press

    Year: 2023

    Format: Paperback

    Size: 266 pages

    ISBN: 9781990263484

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'Think global, act local!', 'Be the change you want to see in the world!', 'Every little bit counts!'. We can all get on board with such sentiments, right? That, of course, is exactly what corporate spin-masters across the world are banking on. By weaponizing such seemingly innocuous yet powerful narratives, change becomes a matter of personal choice, something each of us must slave away at day by day: switching off lightbulbs to save the environment or exercising to shed the weight we've gained from consuming junk food. All the while, the corporate welfare tap continues to flow, with over $6 trillion worth of annual subsidies dished out to industries that directly contribute to the deaths of over 5.5 million people each year through diabetes, road deaths, global warming, and other crises. But such framing is just the tip of the iceberg. A small part of the corporate disinformation playbook. This playbook is the dark matter of activist work. The unseeable element shapes all harmful spin across all issues. It has never been reverse-engineered - until now.

In Dark PR, Grant Ennis - drawing on his decades of experience working in the environmental, philanthropy, and public health sectors - reveals exactly how multinationals go about hoodwinking and manipulating us. In doing so, he lifts the lid on the nine devious frames contained within the cross-industry corporate disinformation playbook - through denialism, normalization, victim-blaming, multifactorialism, and a variety of other tried-and-tested tactics, corporations divert citizens' attention away from the real causes of global problems, leading them into counter-productive blind-alley "solutions" like ethical consumerism and divestment. Sadly, though, buying Fair Trade chocolate has not and never will save the world. Only by collectively organizing to lobby our governments can we break this destructive cycle of lies and deadly incentives and reclaim control of our lives.

Main arguments:

  1. Corporations receive in excess of $6 trillion worth of annual subsidies that directly contribute to the deaths of over 5.5 million people each year through diabetes, road deaths, global warming, and other crises.
  2. In order to stymie government action that might threaten such handouts, corporations use a cross-industry PR playbook consisting of nine frames aimed at influencing public debate: denialism, post-denialism, normalization, silver boomerangs, magic, treatment, victim-blaming, knotted web, and multifactorialism. These frames directly impact how we live our everyday lives, our safety, and how we go about demanding change.
  3. When it comes to bringing about social change, Dark PR shows how PR frames that encourage ineffective solutions are not merely useless but are actively harmful, as they distract people from lobbying for genuine change. Bringing extensive research to bear, this book demonstrates that we can’t “do both” (that is, do “our bit” as individuals while also lobbying for structural change) when it comes to building political will for social movements. Instead, the focus must be on big picture change at a government level.
  4. Alongside such framing, corporations hamstring the attempts of the public to address these issues by misdirecting appeals for government action toward voluntary good deeds and “ethical consumerism.”
  5. To fight back, citizens must collectively organize to demand that their governments end the subsidies that cause diabetes, kill us in car crashes, and poison our environment.
Table of Contents

Preface
Introduction: Catastrophe by Design
Part I: The Nine Devious Frames
Chapter One: Big Lies
Devious Frame 1: Denialism
Devious Frame 2: Post-denialism
Devious Frame 3: Normalization
Status Quo Maintained by Pseudo-solutions
Chapter Two: Panacea Frames
Devious Frame 4: Silver Boomerangs
Devious Frame 5: Magic
Devious Frame 6: the Treatment Trap
Chapter Three: Victim-blaming (Devious Frame 7)
Fat-shaming
Blaming the Victims of Car-dependency
Green-shaming
Chapter Four: Complicated Frames
Devious Frame 8: Knotted Web
Devious Frame 9: Multifactorial
Political Will is Zero Sum
Part II: Pulling Back the Curtain
Chapter Five: Atomization of Dissent
“Just” Voting: Electoralism
“Just” Protesting: Mobalizationism
“Ethical” Consumerism: Citizen Vs Consumer
Chapter Six: Infrastructure of Dissent
Infrastructure of Dissent
Legal Infrastructure of Dissent
Chapter Seven: False Targets
Corporation-blaming
Overlord-blaming
Multistakeholderism
Chapter Eight: Organize
References

About the Author

Grant Ennis has spent his career working across Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East. His work has spanned spearheading government-led public health efforts in India to supporting civil society projects in Syria. Since 2015, Grant has coordinated government-relations efforts for a $365 million public health program. Grant lectures at Monash University (Australia) on activism, organizing, corporate disinformation, and the role of subsidies in creating global problems (the content of Dark PR). He is also a lecturer on road injury and public health at the National University of Singapore. He is a distinguished alumnus of the University of the Pacific and the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. He is based in Singapore.

What People Are Saying

“The struggle for health is a struggle against powerful vested interests – the corporations that produce harmful commodities, that damage our environment, and that trample over human rights. Yet, in so much of what we do they remain invisible, even though they have often succeeded in framing the narrative that defines and constrains our responses. Grant Ennis has shone a light on these shadowy forces and challenged us to take them on by organising and demanding change.” Dr. Martin McKee CBE, Professor, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Past President, European Public Health Association, Author of Issues in Public Health: Challenges for the 21st Century

“This book is a masterpiece of demystification. Ennis examines every given wisdom in public health and related fields as he reveals how capitalist corporations frame the problems that we perceive and the solutions that we advocate. Any efforts to change these conditions must recognize the importance of corporate framing. Now that this book illuminates our situation so clearly, the next steps focus on the revolutionary transformation of capitalism itself, and moving beyond the capitalist state that protects the corporative framing of what is and what must be done.” Dr. Howard Waitzkin, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, University of New Mexico, Author of Social Medicine and the Coming Transformation

“People who care about health and sustainability already know that consumerism defeats both. But the corporations that sell us consumerism also sell us all the most conspicuous “solutions” to it – responses that just keep the consumerist treadmill turning. As Grant Ennis reveals, they win both ways. Through diverse examples, Ennis shows us how the treadmill turns and how the usual responses are part of its mechanism. Ennis shows us how to spot ineffective responses so that effective, independent opposition can escape the treadmill, organize and act. Conscientious consumption, the search for corporate enemies, and atomized advocacy cannot avail, but Ennis also shows us what actually has worked. The stakes could not be higher. Dark PR is a refreshing and revealing departure from appeals to conscience, demonization of villains, misplaced optimism, and expressions of hopelessness. It is therefore a necessary and important book.” Dr. Peter Norton, Associate Professor, University of Virginia, Author of Autonorama: The Illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving

“Dark PR’s arguments are compelling. The writing style is engaging. This is a very important contribution to how we should collectively be viewing the challenges before us. Ennis clearly distinguishes who are the real fiends in our public policies and the processes by which they came to be. There are so many deep and important lessons from Dark PR. This book will likely fall mostly into the hands of sympathetic readers—those who already agree that we need changes in our public policies to support equitable outcomes for citizens … For this particular audience, the most important lesson is “Aggregate action is not collective action.” We need this paradigmatic shift in our response to a myriad of challenges to local and global public health, safety, and general well-being. Dark PR makes a convincing argument and begins to show us the way.” Dr. Jennifer Brinkerhoff, Professor, George Washington University, Author of Institutional Reform and Diaspora Entrepreneurs: The In-Between Advantage

“We, humans, are better at focusing on isolated events, behaviors, and other symptoms of persistent problems. But we are generally not very good at grasping underlying deeply seated patterns, structures, and mindsets that give rise to those problems. When we want to address wicked problems – such as widespread obesity or climate change – we tend to get distracted with surface-level manifestations of those problems. Many large global corporations skillfully use this tendency to distract public attention from underlying problems they are aggravating, by throwing myriad bones of distraction. The public busily chews on them while such corporations steadily erode the health of people and the planet. To add insult to the injury, these actors manage to get taxpayer-funded subsidies. In Dark PR Grant Ennis deftly exposes a wide range of well-crafted and honed tricks that many global corporations have been using to distract the public from addressing the roots of the problems for decades. Grant’s compelling examples will jolt the reader awake. They will start seeing with more clarity the scale of such problems, as well as the structures underlying those problems. Moreover, Grant provides pragmatic strategies for fighting back with more impact, sidestepping the distractions that corporations will throw along the way. This is a must-read book for students of systems thinking, and to anyone who wants to tackle the types of problems mentioned above.” Dr. Mahabat Baimyrzaeva, Associate Professor, Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey

“We know a lot (and are learning more all the time) about how the tobacco and fossil fuel industries engage in deception, and manipulate policymakers and the public. Dark PR takes us down many different and new byways to explore the “Devious Frames” used by many harmful industries. It makes good use of less well-known examples too, while maintaining a firm grip on the evidence. Dark PR is a highly readable, compelling, and often-alarming account of the complex corporate systems which drive disinformation and their associated harms.” Dr. Mark Petticrew, Professor, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Director of the Public Health Research Consortium, Author of Systematic Reviews in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide

“In public health, we were hoping for a better world after the COVID-19 pandemic. Corporations and their invisible hands – public relations agencies – nevertheless took the opportunity to double their efforts to sell us unhealthy commodities. So much so that disinformation and misinformation are now more than ever part of our daily lives. In his book, Grant Ennis leads us through these practices that shape our modern world. A book to put in all hands!” Dr. Mélissa Mialon, Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin, Author of Big Food & Company: How the pursuit of profit at all costs undermines our health

“It would be an under-statement to say that this is a hugely important book. It is. It shines a very bright light into some very dark corners and exposes the culpability of corporations, governments and economic systems in promoting products that damage our health and do so to make huge profits at the expense of a global health crisis, a crisis defined by 153 million deaths every 25 years. It must be read and must be followed by citizen action and political transformation.” Dr. John Whitelegg, Professor, Centre for Mobility Culture, Kassel, Germany, Author of Critical Mass: Transport, Environment and Society in the Twenty-first Century

“Dark PR is an enjoyable read. Importantly, it brings together a strong analytical view on many of the mechanisms critical to understanding transport and road injury.” Dr. Marco te Brömmelstroet, Professor, University of Amsterdam, Author of Movement: How to take back our streets and transform our lives

“Grant Ennis shines a strong light on ‘dark PR’. In the process, some truly exploitative tactics of the PR industry are exposed, which have huge implications for people’s health and wellbeing – and not before time.” Dr. Deborah Lupton, Professor, University of New South Wales, Centre for Social Research in Health, Author of The Face Mask In COVID Times: A Sociomaterial Analysis

“The health of our communities is in no small part determined by the economic interests of multinational corporations that have a duty to their shareholders to maximise profit from sales. Governments across the world and of all shades have pursued public health policies rested on the notion of personal responsibility, this has delayed any product reform or industry regulation. The methods used have been well documented but in Dark PR Grant Ennis demonstrates how the whole narrative into which health policy is set is a construction of those very industries that harm us, and wilfuly designed to delay, denude or avoid regulation. This happens across multiple industries, we know it was invented by the tobacco industry but perfected by many others. Ennis highlights how this process works in wonderful detail setting out the strategies used, pointing us to counter strategies and an organising framework. For anyone interested in the commercial determinants of health, at any level, this is an essential read.” Greg Fell, Director of Public Health in Sheffield, Vice President, Association of Directors of Public Health

“Our interlacing health, environmental, and climate crises often seem overwhelming, even insurmountable. The gift Grant Ennis provides each of us is an unveiling of the corporate capitalist hegemony over our health and our biosphere. Ennis fixes his analytic powers on the insidious ways government-backed corporations shape how our culture normalizes and problematizes the pressing social and environmental challenges of our day. From his deep investigation of corporate deflection and blame tactics, to his sharp treatise on citizen activism and social movements, Ennis has written both an indictment of the corporate-strangled status quo and an invocation for everyone to transcend the vote by organizing to co-create a better society. A phenomenal and motivating book.” Seth LaJeunesse, Assistant Director, National Center for Safe Routes to School, UNC Highway Safety Research Center, Author of Factors and Frames That Shape Public Discourse Around Road User Safety

“This book encourages readers to critically re-examine the information they have been given about key issues affecting the wellbeing of communities and their environment. Ennis provides frameworks that would be helpful in doing this in a methodical and analytical way. Whether you agree with his insights or not, they will get you thinking and reexamining your assumptions, which is always stimulating.” Dr. Sharon Beder, Professor, University of Wollongong, Author of Global Spin and This Little Kiddy Went to Market

“Painstakingly researched and full of real-world evidence, Dark PR shines light on how seemingly innocuous and well-established messages (like “save energy” or “drive safe” or “eat healthy”) have long been systematically co-opted and weaponised by private corporations – to further their agenda, establish ‘alternative facts,’ and diffuse democratic citizen action towards a better world. By chronicling these tactics as Devious Frames, Ennis’s investigation serves as a powerful reminder to always be on guard and critically look at who exactly benefits from our governments’ subsidies, our public policies, and the taxes we pay.” Nikhil Chaudhary, Cities Advisor, European Institute of Innovation and Technology’s Climate Knowledge Innovation Community (EIT Climate-KIC), Co-Founder and Board Trustee, Equal Streets

“This is a blockbuster of a book. Ennis uses his experience as an academic and public health programme organiser to analyse the policies exacerbating climate change and diet-related obesity, as well as road deaths. It is not just a blast at the corporations behind the problems, but a study of the structures involved in how things have become the way they are: he sets out a typology of ways in which problems are framed, showing how the cultural assumptions we share work against addressing many grave problems societies face. This book avoids conspiracy theorizing, as he says: “…most of the problems we face result not from the absence of regulation, but from political structures designed to benefit powerful actors. These structures are not held in place by a cabal of evildoers; rather, they are maintained through incentives that lead mostly indifferent stakeholders to carry out innumerable small bad acts.” Finally, Ennis puts forward strategies to actually change the issues he has outlined. Will they work? I don’t know – but I suggest that anybody seriously concerned with the major problems facing humanity that he discusses should read this book and carefully consider his arguments.” Dr. Robert Davis, Chair of the Road Danger Reduction Forum (UK) and author of Death on the Streets: Cars and the mythology of road safety.

“Across automobile, oil and food industries, Grant Ennis itemises and adds detail to what so many people in consumer protection, public health, wellbeing and liveability have felt for some time. And that is the enormous hold corporates have over government and public thinking and the millions they are prepared to spend to get their way. He categorises the ways in which corporates both singularly and collectively condition our governments to support their aims against public benefit and he lifts the lid on the dark tactics and techniques used. This book will empower us all to see through their greed and demand better of our politicians.” Rod King, Founder & Campaign Director, 20’s Plenty for Us

“For so many of us across communities we understand how critical it is that we prioritise the things that really matter most – the long term health and wellbeing of all our children, the ecosystems that sustain us, the care we have for each other. While we collectively know that it makes absolute sense to prioritise these things, re-lay the tracks we are on, many of us struggle to understand who has the most power, the most responsibility to make changes that would most effectively do so, and the barriers we must pull down. Books, stories and narratives like Dark PR help explain how people in some industries shape the narratives and stories in our society with the goal of undermining people’s understanding and reasoning about the causes of the collective problems we face and the solutions that will make the biggest difference. Books like Dark PR are critical to providing clarity to the public, advocates, and decision makers about how change can and does happen. The importance of rejecting the corrosive narratives spread by people in damaging and harmful industries that we are simply and only consumers. and the power in building our own more meaningful stories about how we, and our decision makers can act together in our role as citizens to prioritise what really matters most.” Dr. Jess Berentson-Shaw, Author of A Matter of Fact. Talking truth in a post truth world.

“This could be a book that changes the world, or even ‘saves the world.’ That’s a big call, but Dark PR has convinced me that we (cities and society) must change our strategies for dealing with our challenges, especially global warming.” Dr. Paul Tranter, Honorary Associate Professor, UNSW Canberra, Author of Slow Cities: Conquering our Speed Addiction for Health and Sustainability

“A real tour de force. Bringing together road safety, food, and global warming makes the nefarious patterns clear. Dark PR will help students and public health advocates recognize what they are up against as they confront the commercial determinants of health so we can make social justice real.” Dr. Lori Dorfman, Director, Berkeley Media Studies Group and Adjunct Professor, University of California, Berkeley

“This book is excellent. I kept nodding while reading it. And saying “yes, exactly” out loud. So well-articulated. I particularly love the way Grant describes Silver Boomerangs and Magic as harmful, when they divert effort from more urgent policy shifts. This is exactly my problem with electric cars. Not evil of themselves. Pretty darned cool actually. And that’s the problem. I hear over and over that policy makers say we need a ‘balanced’ approach and that electric cars are ‘part of the solution’. There’s a reason car companies are drooling all over themselves to promote electric cars. They’re a huge (literally huge) shiny (literally shiny) excuse to keep the consumption wheels (literally) spinning. Intentionally duping humans to believe we can drive and pave and park our way out of planetary crises. Let’s not be slaves to corporate PR any more. This book is a brilliant lesson in why and how we need to un-dupe our collective selves.” Dr. Bridget Doran, MRCagney

“One of the most useful books I’ve read in a while.” Kea Wilson, StreetsBlogUSA

“Grant Ennis’s [Dark PR is] completely perspective-altering … A truly compelling documentation and critique of power, offering insightful analyses of the public relations tactics often used (by corporations) to undermine collective organizing and demand for meaningful responses to global and local public health, safety, environmental, and general well-being challenges. Particularly timely considering the accelerating climate and ecological crises.” Dr. Festival Godwin Boateng, Columbia University

“Much enjoyed reading this book… one of those books with the potential to change the way you see the world – for the better. With a special focus on global warming, unhealthy food environments and car dependence, it’s a brilliant articulation of the corporate framings which, seemingly forever, are stalling our progress towards a socially and environmentally just world. In addition to equipping us with the knowledge of how these ‘dark and devious frames’ work and how we unwittingly help them with some of our well meaning practices, the book shows us the way forward. Thank you for taking the time to write this book, Grant Ennis, it’s a gift to us all.” Dr. Hulya Gilbert, Lecturer at La Trobe University

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